Mon. Jan 17th, 2022

An intensive care specialist has sounded the alarm about the Northern Rivers’ ability to handle an escalating number of COVID-19 patients — especially if parts of society are not vaccinated.

Vaccine rates across the region have improved, with Byron Shire finally hitting the 80 per cent single-dose mark in the past week, but numbers are still lagging behind the state average.

The Richmond-Tweed region has an overall double-dose vaccination rate of 64.3 percent.

Lismore Base Hospital has been designated to receive COVID-19 patients from Grafton to the Tweed and Queensland border, but intensive care physician Rachel Heap says the 24-hour treatment capacity is limited by the number of staff.

“Without a pool of intensive care staff in our region, we in Lismore can operate four intensive care beds,” she said.

Dr. Heap said the local health care system was “excited” for resources.

“There is a real risk that our local healthcare system will be completely overwhelmed [in the event of a COVID outbreak],” she said.

A doctor stands outside with his arms crossed and a stethoscope around his neck.
Chris Ingall hopes Lismore Base Hospital will be able to handle a possible increase in cases at Christmas.(ABC News: Bridget Judd)

Nurses on overtime

There are still 163 vacant nurses in the health district after 19 employees were recruited last week.

Nursing and Midwifery Association department secretary Gill Wilson said the high number of vacancies meant staff worked long hours.

“Most days, we run on the goodwill of nurses who do double shifts and help their peers and patients,” he said.

Pediatrician Chris Ingall said it was a decades-old problem.

“We train many nurses, but a large minority of those nurses choose to leave the professions within a year or two after graduation,” he said.

A man wearing a mask crosses the road outside a hospital.
Lismore Base Hospitals ICUs often run at full capacity, doctors say.(ABC North Coast: Bronwyn Herbert)

Health manager confident

Northern NSW Local Health District Acting CEO Lynne Weir said Lismore Base Hospital had nine funded ICU beds.

There are some ICU beds at Tweed Hospital and one at Grafton Base Hospital.

She said escalation planning was in place if the region experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization and ventilation.

“We wanted to see if we would reduce elective surgery, and then we have experienced nurses in theater who could also take care of patients at the ICU,” Weir said.

A person is lying in a hospital bed and next to them is a person wearing PPE.
Chris Ingall says not all patients who need ventilation need to be treated in the intensive care unit.(Included – file image)

She said she was confident that specialist intensive care nurses could be recruited at short notice.

“We run across NSW as a network service and I believe we want capacity … we would pull them in if needed,” she said.

Dr. Ingall said there were more than 70 ventilators at Lismore Base Hospital, some of which did not require ICU beds to function because not all ventilation required intubation.

He said 30 or 40 of the region’s current COVID-19 patients were children, and he expects those numbers to rise “at least in the hundreds” with a peak around Christmas and Christmas Day.

“Yes, intensive care will be full, but the wards will be full of people with COVID who require ventilation so they do not need a probe,” he said.

A man with a blue shirt and a stethoscope around his neck is standing in a hospital corridor.
Joe Duncan says about 50 COVID-19 patients in the Northern Rivers are being treated by virtual care.(Delivered to: NSW Health)

Move to virtual care

Health authorities say about 90 percent of COVID cases are able to be treated at home through the virtual care model, which relies on patients being in regular contact with medical staff.

Lismore respiratory physician Joe Duncan said there were about 50 patients in the Northern Rivers who were cared for through the service.

“We can assess the person on the phone, on video, and in some situations we can go to the home to assess them,” he said.

Wilson said he would like to take vaccine-hesitant members of the community into the intensive care unit for a reality check.

“You must not hit with the dice,” he said.

115 cases have been reported in the local health district since the beginning of the current NSW outbreak.

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